Death Under The Big Top

Published July 29, 2021
Death Under The Big Top
The Hartford Circus Fire

On the hot, humid afternoon of July 6, 1944, a crowd of almost 9,000 people, mostly children, crowded under a huge tent in Hartford, Connecticut, for a special matinee performance of the Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey Circus. Mothers and grandparents brought their young ones to the Barbour Street fairgrounds for a day of joy and merriment and to forget about the war overseas for a while.

But later that afternoon, the day turned into horror and death as a fire broke out under the big top tent. The ensuing inferno killed 168 people and injured another 484. Five bodies still remain unclaimed and unknown in Hartford today. The Hartford Circus Fire would turn out to be the worst tragedy to ever occur in the history of the American circus – and it left a heartbreaking haunting in its wake.

People came to the circus that July day in Hartford to forget about their troubles for a few hours – they had no idea that they were coming to their deaths.

The circus began its history in American in 1790. Since then, more than 1,000 circuses have toured the country and have become a part of colorful part of America that few can resist. In the first half of the twentieth century, the mere rumor that a circus might be coming to town was enough to excite every child in the community.

Perhaps the best-known showman connected to the circus was Phineas Taylor Barnum, an eccentric promoter who became known for his novelty museums and engaging hoaxes. Barnum eventually became the founding father of the spectacular traveling show that would develop into the renowned Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey Circus. Before leading the life of a showman, Barnum was a storekeeper and when he failed in business, he started a weekly magazine, which folded under the weight of several libel suits that landed him in prison.

In 1834, Barnum relocated to New York and one year later, he became involved in putting on shows. His first venture involved the exhibition of an African-American woman who was purported to be the 160-year-old nurse of George Washington (she wasn’t) and he enjoy short-lived success with this exhibition. Unfortunately, his attraction died and her age was proven to be no more than 80.

Several years of failure followed and then, in 1841, he purchased Scudder’s American Museum on Broadway in New York and he re-named it “Barnum’s American Museum.” Word quickly spread across the city about the numerous fascinating exhibits on display and it soon became one of the most popular attractions in New York.

P.T. Barnum and one of his most famous “attractions,” General Tom Thumb.

In 1842, Barnum’s museum became the talk of the town with exhibits like the midget “General Tom Thumb” and the Fiji Mermaid, a crudely concocted mummy, part monkey and part fish, which was alleged to be the preserved body of an actual mermaid. He also showcased the original Siamese twins, Chang and Eng Bunker, and continued to expand his offerings with the likes of Native American dancers and the giantess, Anna Swan.

Barnum may have been the first to promote the sort of exhibits that would become circus staples, but he was also the first to suffer the kinds of calamities that would also be connected to the circus – fires, train wrecks and storms. His museum burned so many times that it was nearly impossible for him to obtain fire insurance. But what would become the tradition of “the show must go on” always prevailed. After his museum burned the first time, he moved to a new building. However, a second fire put him out of business.

After the loss of his last museum, Barnum attempted to take a break from show business, but looming debt wouldn’t allow him to leave. Finally, Barnum was convinced to create a partnership with William Cameron Coup, who owned a circus in Delavan, Wisconsin. With his famous name and Coup’s financial backing, the "P.T Barnum's Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan & Hippodrome" was born. His closest competition at the time, James Bailey, would later become an ally.

In 1872, Barnum coined the phrase, "The Greatest Show on Earth," as his traveling circus and sideshow toured the world, undergoing a series of name changes and billings in the process. In 1881, a significant merger took place when Barnum joined forces with James Bailey and James L. Hutchinson. The original name, "P.T. Barnum's Greatest Show On Earth, And The Great London Circus, Sanger's Royal British Menagerie and The Grand International Allied Shows United" was shortened to "Barnum & London Circus" for obvious reasons. A series of splits ensued until the "Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show on Earth" and later "Barnum & Bailey Circus" became the selesai name for the show.

When P.T. Barnum passed away in 1891, Bailey purchased the circus from his widow. He successfully toured the eastern part of the United States until he transported the circus to Europe in 1897 and began a lengthy tour of the continent. He remained abroad until 1902 and when he returned to the United States, he found that the Ringling Brothers, a new circus that had been formed by five brothers, had established a reputation in the east. The new rivalry forced Bailey to tour the Rockies for the first time during 1905. The next year, Bailey passed away and the Barnum's much-loved circus was sold to Ringling Brothers in 1907 for the sum of $400,000.

In a few short years, the Ringling Brothers show became the most popular circus in American. As was the method of the times, the circus traveled from town to town, setting up their tents and sideshows in whatever venue was available. They started out touring the Midwest, where they achieved great success, and eventually began traveling all over the United States. The circus eventually became so large that a train was needed to transport the bulk of their business. It is through this mode of transportation that the Ringling Brothers became known as the largest traveling show of their day.

With the combined shows, the Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey Circus became the largest and most profitable show in the world.

The Ringlings purchased the Barnum & Bailey Circus in 1907 and kept the circuses separate for several years. In 1919, the last remaining Ringling Brothers, Charles and John, decided to combine the two circuses into one grand enterprise. The "Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Combined Shows" made its debut at Madison Square Garden in New York City on March 29, 1919.

Throughout the 1920s, the circus continued to generate great success and when Charles passed away in 1926, John Ringling became recognized as one of the richest men in the world. Although the circus was affected by the Great Depression of the early 1930s, it managed to do well, largely because people counted on the circus to take them away from their troubles for a while. After the United States entered World War II, the lure of the circus stayed strong. Despite travel restrictions that were created by the war, President Franklin Roosevelt made a special declaration to allow the circus to use the rail system.

People still wanted to escape from reality, which is what they came seeking that July afternoon in Hartford, Connecticut.

July 6 was a hot day in Hartford, but no one wanted to miss the show. The previous day’s performance had been cancelled because the circus had arrived six hours late from Providence, Rhode Island. The circus management had decided to offer a special afternoon show to make it up to the disappointed children and adults who had planned to come the night before.

People began arriving at the Barbour Street fairgrounds several hours before the circus was scheduled to begin. Children ate hot dogs and cotton candy and mothers purchased tickets for the sideshows and the rides. When it came time for the show to begin, thousands hurried into the tent while the Wonder Band played “The Star Spangled Banner.”

The nineteen-ton big top tent was almost as wonderful an attraction as the animals and performers inside. The massive canvas tent had cost more than $60,000 and was carefully maintained by the circus crews. It had been weatherproofed the previous April with a coating of paraffin, thinned with gasoline, to keep out the rain. Most of the crowd sat on bleachers under the tent, while those with reserved seats sat on folding chairs in the front. On the long north side of the tent were three exits, although all of them were blocked with chutes that were used to bring the animals into the tent. On the south side were three additional exits, one of which was blocked with cables.

The Flying Wallendas, who almost didn’t survive the fire on July 6, 1944

The performance began with Alfred Court’s wild animal act, which was hugely popular with the crowd. As the animals were being escorted out through the steel enclosures that would take them back to their cages, the Flying Wallendas, the famed aerial act that was known for their seven-person pyramid on the high wire, were climbing the poles and getting ready for their performance. Emmett Kelly, America’s most famous hobo clown, was busy going through his antics, which brought laughter to children and parents alike. He was one of the stars of the circus and a universal favorite. Ironically, he never smiled during a show, always making others laugh with his deadpan expression.
Suddenly, a cry of “fire!” was heard in the tent.

A spot of flame appeared on the tent at the main entrance. A Hartford police officer was on duty there and said that when he saw it, the hole was no bigger than a cigarette burn. Slowly, the tiny flame traveled up the canvas wall, increasing in size as it climbed toward the tent’s roof. It was still a small fire at first and most of the performers and the audience were not even aware of it. The spotlights were focused on the Wallendas.

Merle Evans, the circus bandleader, saw the fire at about the same time the policeman saw it. He instantly led the grup band into a lively rendition of “Stars and Stripes Forever,” the song traditionally used in the circus world to warn performers and circus employees that something was amiss under the big top.

Almost immediately, someone threw several buckets of water (which were kept in place inside the tent in case of just such an emergency) but it had no effect. Trainers tried desperately to hurry the wild animals out of the ring. All personnel knew that any impending tragedy would be made worse by animals in the tent’s center. Unfortunately, time was lost when two leopards proved reluctant to leave. Trainers had to turn a water hose on them in order to prod them into the chutes. Meanwhile, the Wallendas had descended speedily on their ropes and were hurrying to safety.

The crowds who previously did not know that the grup band was playing the “disaster march” now were undecided whether to watch the trainers struggling with the animals or to watch the growing fire. Buckets of water were still being thrown on the blaze, which had now climbed to a height of five or six feet. Circus hands ran back and forth, trying to decide what to do. Perhaps this was why there was no panic from the audience – the fire was still small and it was being dealt with by people who surely knew what they were doing. Though the fire was still growing, and was about two feet in width, there was no mass migration toward the exits. Before that actually happened, a strong wind whipped into the enclosure and the fire suddenly swept across the top of the tent with alarming speed. It rose across the west end and moved toward the northeast corner. Soon, the “entire top became a mass of flames,” as one witness later recalled.

The circus big top became an inferno, certain death for those trapped inside.

Burning bits of canvas and liquid paraffin began to rain down onto the now-panicking crowd, inflicting severe burns on everyone they struck. The grup band gave up on their music and proceeded to march calmly from the tent in hopes of encouraging the audience to do the same – but it was too late for that. As support ropes burned, the tent’s six huge poles began to fall, taking flaming pieces of canvas with them as they toppled over. Screams filled the tent as the frightened crowd began to run. Hundreds climbed around the circus wagons, stumbled over the animal chutes and became tangled in the metal folding chairs that had been tossed aside in front of the bleachers. Parents tossed their children into the open arms of strangers at the bottom of the grandstands. Some of these parents and children left the black smoke unscathed, while others were trampled and burned amid the confusion.

Many children, separated from their parents, wailed and screamed. One little boy tried to shield his fallen grandmother from the stampeding crowd, begging someone to help him get her to her feet. Pieces of flaming canvas continued to fall and women, their hair and dresses on fire, shrieked and wept. The human barricade that had been caused by the knocked-over folding chairs prevented many from reaching the exits. Many rushed to the entrances on the north side, only to arrive there and find them blocked by the animal chutes. Hundreds of bodies were later found piled there.
One by one, the heavy support poles crashed over. As the sixth and selesai pole toppled, the entire tent, which was now engulfed in flames, swooped down on the crowd, blanketing them in fiery canvas. Those trapped and screaming beneath the collapsed tent were doomed and soon they fell silent. It had taken the fire only ten minutes from the time the first warning cry had gone up to wreak its havoc.
Sirens screamed at the five alarms triggered and fire trucks raced to the fairgrounds, but they were too late to save lives. All they could do was spray water on the charred ruins. To make matters worse, there were no hydrants on the fairgrounds and the firefighters had to use hydrants located almost three hundred yards away.

Ambulances lined up to take victims to the hospital. Hartford hospitals were prepared for such a disaster. It was wartime and major hospitals were instructed in burn treatment in case of enemy air raids. Victims were given morphine, wrapped in sheets and given plasma injections.

Volunteers and rescue workers carry out the survivors – and the dead.

The dead numbered 168 – half of them children. All of them had come to the circus that day for an afternoon of carefree fun. All of the circus people escaped alive, although the Wallendas had barely made it out safety. The villainous and heroic acts of the fire became apparent in the hours, days and weeks following the disaster. Some threw chairs at others to clear from their escape route. Some jumped from the tops of the bleachers into the crowds of people, not knowing or caring if they hurt someone. On the other hand, Emmett Kelly, the famous clown, rallied performers to get buckets of water and help however they could. Some grabbed scared and crying children and stayed with them until they could be reunited with a loved one.

The aftermath of the fire was grim. The Connecticut State Armory was turned into a temporary morgue and families filed through, lifting white sheets and trying to identify the charred remains. State and city investigators followed clues about the causes of the fire, which ranged from a tossed cigarette, a motor that was left running near the tent that ran out of oil, and even arson. The likely cause was determined to be a cigarette that was tossed into some dry grass at the edge of the tent. The rapid spread of the fire was blamed on the improper weatherproofing of the canvas and the use of highly flammable materials. State investigators listed eight causes of the fire and issued citations to Ringling Brothers for various offenses, including failure to flameproof, location of the animal chutes, insufficiency of personnel, failure to maintain an organization to fight the fire, lack of firefighting equipment, failure to distribute firefighting equipment, and the location of the supply wagons. Five circus employees were charged with manslaughter and arrested and warrants were issued for four more. Later, seven of the defendants received one- year prison sentences. Legal claims against Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey totaled nearly $4 million.

The fire captured America’s attention in 1944 and was ranked tenth among all stories reported by the Associated Press that year. It was the only one not related to the war.

Funeral parlors were forced to hold services for the dead in fifteen-minute intervals and services were conducted for several victims at the same time.

In Hartford and the Connecticut River Valley, the story was more than just a news report. It was a heartbreaking occurrence that touched almost every family in the region in one way or another. Flags flew at half-staff for weeks and funeral parlors were forced to hold services at fifteen-minute intervals. The burning of the big top on July 6, 1944 was the worst circus disaster in history and it continues to haunt the people of Hartford even now, more than 65 years later.

And not all of those haunting memories are physical scars, mental trauma and bad memories.

Several legends grew in the wake of the fire, including one that stated that the ghosts of the fire victims remained behind at the site of the tragedy. Two years after the fire, a housing project was erected nearby and many claimed the place was haunted. Residents told of hearing screams, strange cries, disembodied weeping and they spoke of seeing apparitions of people who seemed to be smoldering, or on fire. One man stated that he was unlocking his door one night and looked up to see a little boy go running past his apartment. The boy left a trail of smoke behind him, as though his clothing was burning. The man dropped the bag of groceries that he was carrying and hurried off to see if the boy needed help. When he turned the corner in the direction the “burning boy” had gone, he was shocked to see there was no one there. The man who recounted the story had recently moved to Hartford and was unaware that the 1944 fire had occurred a short distance away.

A few years later, the housing project, which had been a temporary arrangement to ease the home shortage being experienced by returning war veterans, was torn down and replaced by a school. The weird haunting tales also plagued the school and it was generally accepted that the ghosts were victims of the fire.   

A memorial to the fire victims now stands at the site and some say the ghosts remain, lingering at the place where their lives were cut short so tragically.

From the book, AND HELL FOLLOWED WITH IT by Troy Taylor & Rene Kruse


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